KHARKIV, Ukraine (AP) – In the dust, rubble and dead lying in Kharkiv’s central Freedom Square, Ukrainians on Tuesday saw what could become of other cities if Russia’s invasion is not countered in time.
Shortly after dawn, a Russian military strike hit the center of Ukraine’s second largest city, severely damaging the symbolic Soviet-era regional administration building. Closed-circuit television footage showed a fireball engulfing the street in front of the building and a few cars rolling out of the billowing smoke.
“You can’t watch this without crying,” a witness said in video of the episodes, confirmed by The Associated Press.
An emergency official said the bodies of at least six people were pulled from the ruins and at least 20 others were injured. Two bodies lay side by side on the cobblestones near an abandoned car. One was barefoot and wrapped in a blanket. The other, in military-colored clothing, had a clenched fist.
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It wasn’t immediately clear what type of weapon was used or how many people were killed, but Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said there were dozens of casualties.
Zelenskyy called the attack on Freedom Square “open, undisguised terror. Nobody will forgive. Nobody will forget. This attack on Kharkiv is a war crime.”
It was the first time that the Russian military had hit the center of the city of 1.5 million, whose residential areas have been under fire for days. Ukraine’s emergency services said they extinguished 24 shelling fires in and around Kharkiv and deactivated 69 explosive devices.
Tuesday’s attack also hit a tent camp in the central square, set up to collect aid for Ukrainian volunteer militants rushing to defend Kharkiv. For the past few days, volunteer guards have occupied the regional administration building as part of this effort. It was feared that some of the volunteers were now among the dead.
Windows were blown up on the administration building itself. Ceilings had collapsed. Concrete dust added another layer of grim gray despair. A nearby car was crushed.
When the emergency services searched the rubble, new anger arose.
“This is for those who have been waiting for a Russian peace! Is that what you wanted? Many injured,” said one.
The Russian military has denied attacking Ukrainian civilians despite ample evidence of them shelling homes, schools and hospitals in Ukraine.
“(The military) is taking all measures to protect the life and safety of civilians,” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Tuesday. “I would like to emphasize that attacks are carried out only on military targets and only precision weapons are used.”
A Kharkiv hospital, unconvinced by Russian assurances, has moved its maternity ward to a bomb shelter, where heavily pregnant women pace the streets in the dark. The screams of dozens of newborns echoed off the thick concrete walls. Electrical cords dangled. Rolled-up mattresses were placed in front of the windows to protect residents from deadly shards of glass if explosions struck nearby.
As the shelling in Kharkiv increased, a family spent a fifth day in another shelter under the city. Bottled water and backpacks were stored in the basement. A military helmet hung on a shelf, with a boy looking at a phone underneath. Boredom mixed with fear.
“It’s a nightmare, and it’s really gripping from the inside. It cannot be explained in words,” said Ekaterina Babenko, the mother of the family.
She could hardly believe that the Russian attack was in Kharkiv, tearing its neighborhoods apart.
“My friend, who lives in the Gorizont suburb, a few hours ago the house next to hers was hit and several floors were destroyed,” Babenko said. “And for some time there was no connection with her. Those were scary minutes, very scary.”
For her family and others still sheltering in the town near the Russian border, the world was changing too fast up there to comprehend. Warehouses, houses, garages, cars, everything burned.
“Sveta, let’s go,” urged a man in video showing Monday’s shelling of a residential area in Kharkiv.
“Go, I’ll catch up with you,” says the woman.
“Go away, for God’s sake!” the man pleaded.
Other residents were already flocking west, hoping to leave Ukraine altogether.
Follow AP’s coverage of the Ukraine crisis at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
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